With NASA grant, new project seeks to replicate the Cradle of Life

February 14, 2019

Yale professor of geology and geophysics Jun Korenaga will take part in a new, NASA-supported project that will examine the specific conditions that led to the rise of life on Earth.

Called the Earth First Origins project, the effort has been awarded a $9 million grant from the NASA Astrobiology Program. The five-year project will focus on identifying, replicating, and exploring how prebiotic molecules and chemical pathways could have formed under realistic early Earth conditions. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) is leading the project, which will include researchers from around the country. The origin of life on Earth is something I’ve been interested in for a long time. Where on Earth did life start, and how?” Korenaga said. “It’s the information critically missing in the scientific literature. Perhaps that is not surprising, because we don’t have a clear idea about what Earth looked like when it was very young — i.e., when life got started probably about four billion years ago.”

Korenaga said the researchers will try to address two fundamental issues simultaneously: early Earth’s environment and the origin of life. Korenaga will lead the theoretical work of characterizing the early Earth environment, sharing these findings with the team’s prebiotic experimentalists. The experimentalists, in turn, will share information to help the theorists understand which aspects of early Earth may be most promising for further research.

This may sound too ambitious, but it is actually the most logical, and hopefully most productive, step forward,” Korenaga said. “The project is designed to evolve in an organic way by this feedback between earth science and prebiotic chemistry, and I’m thrilled to be part of this highly interdisciplinary endeavor.”

In addition to RPI and Yale, other institutions involved in the Earth First Origins project include the Carnegie Institution for Science, the University of Colorado-Boulder, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Rochester, the University of South Carolina, Oberlin College, the University of Utah, and the University of Southern California.

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